Not Even Funny

There were a number of people Dorothy Parker couldn’t abide. That included gifted writers who not only eschewed serious literature, but who instead chose to crank out a lot of mass-market trash.

March 18, 1933 cover by William Steig.

Parker was well acquainted with Tiffany Ellsworth Thayer (1902–1959), and for a time she even associated with the Fortean Society, which Thayer founded in 1931. Inspired by writer Charles Fort, the Forteans promoted the use of scientific methods to evaluate unexplained phenomena such as UFOs, spontaneous human combustion, and other oddities. Parker and fellow New Yorker writers Ben Hecht and Alexander Woollcott were among founding members, doubtless drawn to Fort’s reputation as a skeptic; however one famous skeptic, journalist H.L. Mencken, called Fort’s ideas “Bohemian mush.” It’s hard to say how long Parker stayed connected to the Society, but by 1933 she was fed up with Thayer’s novels, including his latest, An American Girl, which she found to be “the gaudiest flower of pretentiousness.” Here is an excerpt from Parker’s sometime column, “Reading and Writing,” subtitled Not Even Funny…

TIFF WITH TIFFANY…At left, Tiffany Thayer aboard a cruise ship with an unidentified woman, most likely his first wife, a dancer named Tanagra, early 1930s; at right, Dorothy Parker and a first edition of the offending volume. In her review, Parker observed that Taylor “is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.” (IMDB/Worthpoint)

Although Thayer founded a society based on scientific reason, his pulp novels were filled with fantasy and prurient imagery. F. Scott Fitzgerald once observed that “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”

BELIED LETTRES…Clockwise from top left, Thayer’s 1931 novel Call Her Savage was made into a 1932 film starring Clara Bow, here featured on the book’s dustcover; the same novel repackaged in 1952 for the pulp trade; a 1943 edition of Thayer’s One-Man Show, and a 1951 Avon reprint that toned down the nudity but upped the creep factor. (facebook.com/biblio.com)

…and speaking of creep factor, check out Avon’s 1950 re-issue of Thayer’s 1937 novel The Old Goat, illustration attributed to Edgar Lyle Justis

(biblio.com)

Artists like Justis must have had a ball doing these illustrations, creating images to lure the unsuspecting into purchasing these old titles. Note how the coked-up old man sports not-so-subtle devil horns.

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They Called It a Holiday

E.B. White, James Thurber (see below) and others in the March 18 issue commented on the national banking “holiday” declared by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an effort to stabilize America’s banking system and rebuild public confidence. This led to the Glass-Steagall Act, signed three months later by FDR. Some observations in “Notes and Comment” by E.B. White, with the usual great spot illustrations by Otto Soglow

SAY CHEESE!…President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Glass-Steagall Act on June 16, 1933, effectively separating commercial banking from investment banking and creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), among other things. (AP)

…meanwhile, Germany’s new chancellor, Adolf Hitler, was busy abolishing civil liberties while pretending to be distressed by the behavior of his brownshirt thugs…an excerpt from Howard Brubaker’s “Of All Things”…

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A Familiar Ring

For the second week in a row Ring Lardner lent his wit to The New Yorker’s “Over the Waves,” column, which typically reviewed the latest news and entertainment beamed from the radio tower atop the Empire State Building. Lardner, however, was in California, lamenting the challenges of the time lag. An excerpt:

AND NO WI-FI, EITHER…Ring Lardner (center) detailed the frustrations of listening to New York-based radio entertainers like Eddie Cantor (left) and Rudy Vallée during his stay in California. (Pinterest/The Classic Archives/New York Times)

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Dance Away Those Blues

The pre-Code musical 42nd Street received a brief, albeit mostly positive review from critic John Mosher, who along with the producers of the film knew Depression-weary Americans needed such distractions. Nearly 90 years later (April 10, 2020), another New Yorker film critic, Richard Brody, suggested 42nd Street as one of the best films to stream during the Covid-19 pandemic: “Modern musicals start here, and Busby Berkeley’s genius bursts into full flower,” he wrote.

DANCE ‘TIL YOU DROP…Under pressure to produce a hit after losing his lead dancer (Bebe Daniels) to a broken ankle, Broadway musical director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter, center) mercilessly rehearses her replacement, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler, in her film debut) before the premiere, vowing “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl.” Looking on (to the right of Baxter) is Ginger Rogers, who portrayed “Anytime Annie.” (tcm.com)
A LEG UP ON HIS CAREER…42nd Street was a breakthrough film for choreographer Busby Berkeley, who would direct and choreograph a long string of musicals until the 1960s. The film is now considered a classic, preserved in the United States National Film Registry. (IMDB)

…and for trivia buffs, during an opening scene Bebe Daniels is shown reading the February 20, 1932 (anniversary) issue of The New Yorker…

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From Our Advertisers

A convertible LaSalle (a downscale Cadillac brand) looks like a great way to enjoy a drive along the beach…let’s hope it has enough acceleration to outrun the tsunami apparently heading its way…

Walter Chrysler continued to dig into his deep pockets for two-page color spreads, including this one that placed his humble DeSoto in St. Moritz, of all places…

…not to be outdone, the folks at Nash found another exotic locale for their budget-priced sedan…Chicago, that is, at the 1933 Century of Progress Exhibition…and for an extra touch of class, we have what appears to be a chauffeur attending to this modest motorcar…

…America’s top luxury car maker, Pierce Arrow — a regular advertiser in The New Yorker — decided a quarter-page ad was sufficient to keep their name before the eyes of the well-heeled…at right, an ad from another back page featured cartoonist Don Herold shilling for the makers of imitation liquor flavors…according to the ad, one bottle, obtainable from your druggist, “flavors a gallon” of whatever forsaken hootch you are consuming…

…the folks at Log Cabin relied on the talents of another New Yorker cartoonist, John Held Jr., to make both their product and a signature cocktail a more palatable experience…

…I have to hand it to the folks at Heinz for signing off on an advertisement only a vampire would find appealing…

…the purveyors of Marie Earle beauty products rolled out this modern ad to promote their “Essential Cream”…

…while staid Brooks Brothers remained true to form — no flashy colors or advertising jargon — just straight talk about price increases….

…and then there’s the upmarket Fortnum & Mason, appealing to America’s Anglophiles with one of their famed wicker hampers filled with various goodies selected for “charming and greedy people”…

….for several years R.J. Reynolds employed the services of Carl “Eric” Erickson (1891–1958) to illustrate a series of ads featuring classy, disinterested, continental types smoking their Camel brand cigarettes…despite their less-than-exotic name, the makers of Spud menthol cigarettes hired Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom (1905–1986) to create their own smart set of smokers…

…ads that bore a striking resemblance to Erickson’s Camel work (this example from 1931)…

…and for your consideration, works from 1933 by Carl Erickson and Ruth Sigrid Grafstrom…both were noted fashion illustrators…

…on to our cartoonists, we begin with Charles Addams, who’d just published his first New Yorker cartoon the previous month, in the Feb. 4, 1933 issue

…that first cartoon was simply signed “Addams”…here he used the familiar “Chas Addams”…a close-up of the signature…

…we continue with a great caricature by Al Frueh to accompany a profile of Rudolf Kommer (as told by Alexander Woollcott)…

…a delightful full page of bank holiday-themed cartoons by James Thurber

Richard Decker offered up a tall tale…

…and we close with Peter Arno, who served up one of his clueless cuckolds…

Next Time: Diary of a Lady…